March 2015 TA Balasubramanian Can You Teach a Zebra Some Algebra?The Alchemy of Learning,Debashis Chatterjee,Wisdom Tree PaperbankINR 245; 156 pages Can You Teach a Zebra Some Algebra? The Alchemy of Learning, Debashis Chatterjee, Wisdom Tree Paperbank INR 245; 156 pages Great teaching is the ability to distinguish between what can and needs to be explained, and what cannot be explained,” says Debashis Chatterjee. “The working of a computer needs to be explained, as it is made by the human mind. But a butterfly has to be seen … by the gleaming eyes of wonder, as it is a natural expression of life, and not of the mind.” That’s a typical distinction that sets the tone for this wise and witty compilation of the many facets of teaching – and it is a rich workbook that draws upon the author’s experience in teaching over 11,000 principals and 15,000 managers in Fortune 100 companies for over 20 years across six continents. A passion for “right” teaching is what drives Chatterjee to share his insights and learning. He has conducted leadership classes at the Harvard University, and he has taught students as a professor at the Indian Institutes of Management (IIM) at Lucknow and Kozhikode. So why is the book titled, Can you Teach a Zebra some Algebra? According to Chatterjee, that’s precisely what the present system of education is doing. He spotlights the current pitiful state of affairs in the form of a comic story of what happens in a misdirected sports school for animals. Imagine that the teacher is assigned the task of training animals to compete for the Animal Olympics. The teacher takes on a rabbit and tries to teach it how to fly. He works on an eagle and challenges the bird to run. An elephant is persuaded to swim, and a tortoise is encouraged to practice a high jump. After many years of training, a duck is made the Olympic champion, because the bird is the only candidate that can hop, fly, jump and swim reasonably well. Students, says Chatterjee, like the duck in the story, are asked to do a bit of everything with no mastery of anything – and that’s how the system becomes ineffective in delivering the “right” education. The book is, as the sub-title says, “about the alchemy of learning,” and it amply covers a variety of approaches to provide appropriate learning opportunities and nurturing environments for everyone – and not necessarily in the confined environments of schools with formal walls and rigid tutoring systems. For teachers and those who aspire to contribute to the field of education, this is a delightful source of inspiration and guidance. However, even if you are merely curious about effective learning and how best to improve your capacity to learn and grow, this is a valuable trove of witty ideas and wise insights from a master teacher. -TA Balasubramanian
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